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Mrs T’s rogues’ gallery

Sholto Byrnes recalls the allies and hangers-on who prospered under Thatcher

Alfred Sherman

A former Communist, expelled for “Titoist deviationism”, a Balkans expert, journalist and polemicist, Alfred Sherman was arguably the main provider of the intellectual basis of Thatcherism. He co-founded the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) with Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher in 1974 and, as its director, in effect sidelined the official Conservative Research Department. Senior Tories got used to being overruled with the words “but Alfred says . . .” An extremist – he had bracing views on immigration and later advised the Bosnian Serb war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic – and a difficult, prickly man, he left the CPS in 1984, complaining that his critics had represented him as “an amalgam of Père Joseph, Svengali and the Elders of Zion”. Nonetheless, Thatcher gave him a knighthood and said of him: “We could never have defeated socialism if it hadn’t been for Sir Alfred.”

Alan Walters

Described by his boss as “radical, fearless” and “the finest of friends”, Professor Sir Alan Walters was twice personal economics adviser to Thatcher, on the first occasion helping spoon out the harsh medicine of the 1981 Budget (which raised taxes in the midst of recession), and on the second playing a part in the row that helped force her from office. A stern monetarist, Walters disagreed with the Exchange Rate Mechanism, calling it “half-baked”, but the chancellor, Nigel Lawson, supported it. Asked by Neil Kinnock if she would get rid of Walters, Thatcher replied: “Advisers advise, ministers decide.” It wasn’t enough for Lawson, who resigned within hours. Unbending, outspoken and arrogant (his coffee mug bore the words “Quiet – genius at work”), Walters described a later chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, as being without “spine, knowledge and drive”. Some thought he had aimed to provoke Lawson’s resignation; Walters himself ended up standing for Sir James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party.

Charles Powell

If New Labour was guilty, as is often charged, of politicising the civil service, the precedent was set by Charles Powell. Technically a junior private secretary to the prime minister, his crucial behind-the-scenes role during the Westland affair in 1986 emphasised how much more important this “foreign affairs adviser” truly was: in fact, he and Bernard Ingham (Diary, page 9) virtually ran No 10 between them, to the irritation of many cabinet ministers. Some suggested that Powell, a man of charm and intelligence, was the son she had never had. Certainly he remained close to her, even when working for her successor (his brother Jonathan occupied a similar role in the Blair government). When Thatcher left office and there was a plumbing problem in her new home, it was to Powell she turned. He advised using a book called the Yellow Pages. When she called back she was still in shock at the fees charged.

Mark Thatcher

The “boy Mark” as in his late twenties when Downing Street became the family home, and whereas his father, Denis, did his best to keep out of the limelight, the son revelled in it despite the embarrassment he caused. In 1982 he made world headlines when he managed to get lost during the Paris-Dakar motor rally, causing his mother to cry openly during the six days he was missing. She doted on “Thickie Mark”, as he was known at Harrow, even when his business interests caused her trouble. In 1984, questions were asked in the House about his role as a fixer for British companies in the Middle East, and he is said to have profited from the £20bn al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Before the 1987 election Mark asked Bernard Ingham how he could best help out in the campaign. According to Alan Clark, the response was: “Leave the country.”

Keith Joseph

The “Mad Monk”, a cabinet minister under Ted Heath, was going to be the right’s challenger for the party leadership in 1975 until he made an unfortunate reference to “human stock” in a speech that, to many, smacked of eugenics. Probably to his relief, his protégée Margaret Thatcher then stood and won instead. As her head of policy, Joseph, a baronet and fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, formulated what became known as Thatcherism. “It was only in 1974 that I was converted to Conservatism,” he wrote, referring to the intellectual crisis that led him to reject the Butskellite consensus and embrace monetarism and the free market. “I had thought that I was a Conservative, but now I see I was not really one at all.” A rather other-worldly figure, dry, doleful and unspinnable, Joseph was not a great success in government and left in 1986. But as Thatcher said to him on his resignation: “You more than anyone else . . . were the architect who shaped the policies.”

Norman Tebbit

The “Chingford Skinhead” was, in the words of Michael Foot, Thatcher’s “semi-house-trained polecat”, licensed to appeal in the crudest terms to the authoritarian, nationalistic, lower-middle and working-class voters who were the core Thatcher Conservatives. The inventor of the “cricket test”, and for ever associated with the slogan “On yer bike”, Tebbit joined the cabinet in 1981 in the reshuffle that sidelined the “wets”, and later became party chairman. He returned to the back benches after the 1987 general election victory to spend more time caring for his wife, Margaret, who had been seriously injured in the 1984 Brighton bombings. Despite their occasional differences – Tebbit was seen as a potential successor, and he knew it – Thatcher “bitterly regretted” losing so pugnacious and like-minded a colleague. Old-style patrician Tories were less impressed. Harold Macmillan once said of him: “Heard a chap on the radio this morning talking with a cockney accent. They tell me he is one of Her Majesty’s ministers.”

Woodrow Wyatt

Cigar-chomping Lord Wyatt of Weeford, the News of the World’s “Voice of Reason”, was a former Labour MP who became an admirer and close friend of Thatcher’s during the 1970s. Flamboyant, somewhat ridiculous – “his whole lifestyle was of an upper-class twit, although he wasn’t one to begin with,” said Bill Rodgers’s wife, Silvia – he nevertheless had real influence. Peers, politicians and captains of industry were regulars at his St John’s Wood salon, and he played an important role in advising Thatcher to allow Rupert Murdoch to buy the Times newspaper titles without reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, which could well have blocked the sale. Wyatt claimed in his posthumously published diaries that he spoke to her at length every Sunday morning, and that his friend the Queen Mother was one of Thatcher’s most devoted supporters; the Tory historian Lord Blake was one of many who considered him “a notorious liar”.

Gordon Reece

By her side from her first broadcasts as education secretary, Reece was a television producer who fitted the stereotype of the flashy adman, dressing well and drinking nothing but champagne. His career had been in programmes such as On the Braden Beat and Emergency Ward Ten, and he knew nothing about politics. But he it was who shaped her image in every way. He had her filmed doing the washing-up in a pinny during the 1975 Tory leadership election, advised on her hair and clothes, trained her to lower the pitch of her voice, and selected the Saatchi brothers to handle the party’s account in the run-up to the 1979 election, which resulted in the “Labour isn’t working” campaign. “If we lose the election,” Thatcher joked to him, “I may be sacked, but you will be shot.” He left Central Office in 1980 but continued to advise “the Leaderene”, as Norman St John-Stevas called her. He returned to help with the next two elections and was one of the favoured few invited to Chequers every Christmas.

Cecil Parkinson

Smoothie-chops Cecil was, according to Mrs T’s biographer Hugo Young, “the very first of her protégés . . . socially and politically . . . a kind of fulfilment of the Thatcher ideal”. Plucked from lower office to be party chairman in 1981, Parkinson attracted envy when he became a leading member of the Falklands War cabinet and cemented his place at Thatcher’s side.

Self-made, the son of a railwayman, he personified what the snobbish, waspish Tory Julian Critchley called the “garagiste” tendency of upwardly mobile younger MPs. His charm led to his downfall – on the cusp of being offered the Foreign Office, he had to resign after it came to light that he had fathered a child by his secretary. He later returned to the cabinet, but never regained quite the same influence.

Shirley Porter

The Tesco heiress was considered the Margaret Thatcher of local government as leader of Westminster City Council from 1983-91, although even her fellow grocer's daughter in No 10 might have hesitated to take one of Porter's most notorious decisions - selling off cemeteries for 15p. Called "divisive, pushy and egotistical" by a former Tesco board member, Porter made attempts to ensure Westminster stayed blue that resulted in the "homes for votes" scandal, making her name a byword for corruption. She was accused of gerrymandering after council housing in marginal wards was sold to owner-occupiers deemed more likely to vote Tory. She also forced homeless families to live in tower blocks known to be contaminated with asbestos. After fleeing to Israel, where she was immune from charges, she settled a judgment debt in 2004 by paying £12m and was stripped of the title Dame of the British Empire.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Thatcher: 30 years on, the final verdict

NEAL FOX FOR NEW STATESMAN
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They know where you live

Imagine your house being raided by armed police. That’s what happened to Mumsnet’s Justine Roberts after she fell victim to an internet hoaxer.

At around midnight on Tuesday 11 August 2015, a man dialled 999 to report a murder. A woman had been killed in her London home, he said, before hanging up without offering his name. A second call followed. This time, the man claimed to be the killer. He told the operator that he had now taken the woman’s children hostage at the Islington address. They were locked with him inside a room in the house, he said. The police responded with reassuring speed. Fifteen minutes later, eight officers, five of them armed with automatic weapons, accompanied by saliva-flecked dogs, arrived at the scene and took up position in neighbouring front gardens. When one officer banged on the front door of the house, the team was greeted, moments later, not by a masked murderer but by a blinking and bewildered au pair.

Justine Roberts, the woman whom the caller claimed to have killed, was in fact nearly 2,000 kilometres away – in Italy, holidaying with her husband and children. After explaining this to the police, the au pair called Roberts, who assumed that the incident was an unfortunate misunderstanding, one that could be unpicked after the vacation. It was no mistake. Roberts had been the victim of “swatting”, the term given to a false emergency call designed to bait an armed unit of police officers to storm someone’s home. It wasn’t until a few days later, as the family was preparing to return to London, that Roberts discovered that she had been the target of a planned and sustained attack, not only on her household, but also on her business.

Roberts is the founder of Mumsnet, the popular British internet discussion forum on which parents share advice and information. A few days before the swatting incident, members of 8chan, a chat room that prides itself on being an open, anonymous platform for free speech, no matter how distasteful, had registered accounts on Mums­net with the aim of trolling people there. When legitimate Mumsnet users identified and then ridiculed the trolls, some retreated to 8chan to plot more serious vengeance in a thread that the police later discovered. Roberts wasn’t involved in the online skirmish but, as the public face of the site, she was chosen as the first target.

After the initial armed response, Roberts’s perception was that the police were unconcerned about the swatting attack. “We were told that there was no victim, so there was not much that could be done,” she told me. The hoax caller, however, was not finished. In the days after the incident, there was chatter on Mumsnet and Twitter about what had happened. A Mumsnet user whom I will call Jo Scott – she requested anonymity for her own safety – exchanged heated messages with a hacker who claimed responsibility for the 999 call.

“It descended into jokes and silliness, like many things do,” Scott said. “I didn’t take it seriously when the hacker said he had big surprises in store.” She doesn’t believe that what happened next was personal. “I think I was just easy to find.”

A few days after police were called to Roberts’s home, Scott was in her bedroom while her husband was sitting downstairs playing video games. At 11pm, she heard a noise outside. “I looked out of the window and saw blue flashing lights in the street,” she recalled. “I could hear shouting but I didn’t pay it much notice.” Then she heard her husband open the front door. Police rushed into the house. An armed officer shouted upstairs, asking Scott if she was hurt. When she replied that she was fine, he told her to fetch her two young children: he needed to see them. Scott shook her sons awake, explaining, so as not to alarm them, that the police had come to show the boys their cars. As the three of them went downstairs, the officers swept up through the house, repeatedly asking if there were any weapons on the property.

“I was beyond confused by this point,” Scott said. “Everyone was carrying a gun. They had little cutaway bits so you could see the bullets. My eldest asked one of the officers if he could have a go on his gun and went to touch it.”

As Scott sat with an officer downstairs, she asked what had happened to her husband. “I later found out that the noises I’d heard were the police calling for him to come outside,” she said. “He dropped the PlayStation controller as he left the room. It was only later that we realised it’s a good job he did: in the dark, the controller might have looked like a weapon.”

Outside, Scott’s husband had been surrounded and arrested. Other police ­officers were on the lookout in the front gardens of nearby properties, having warned the couple’s neighbours to stay indoors, away from their windows. “One of the officers said it was beginning to look like a hoax,” Scott said. “Then he mentioned swatting. As soon as he said that word, I twigged that I’d seen the term that day on Twitter in relation to the Mumsnet hack.”

***

The term “swatting” has been used by the FBI since 2008. “Swat” is an acronym of “Special Weapons and Tactics”, the American police squads routinely called to intervene in hostage situations. It is, in a sense, a weaponised version of a phoney order of pizza, delivered as a prank to a friend’s home, albeit one that carries the possibility of grave injury at the hands of police. For perpetrators, the appeal is the ease with which the hoax can be set in motion and the severity of the results. With a single, possibly untraceable phone call, dialled from anywhere in the world, it is possible to send an armed unit to any address, be it the home of a high-profile actor whom you want to prank or that of someone you want to scare.

In America, where swatting originated, the practice has become so widespread – targets have included Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift, Clint Eastwood and the Californian congressman Ted Lieu – that it is now classed as an act of domestic terrorism. In the UK, where Justine Roberts’s was one of the first recorded cases, swatting is classed as harassment, though that may change if these and other forms of internet vigilante attacks, such as doxxing, become increasingly commonplace.

Doxxing involves the publication of someone’s personal details – usually their home address, phone numbers, bank details and, in some cases, email address – on the internet. It is often the prelude to swatting: after all, the perpetrator of a hoax cannot direct the police to the target’s home address until this is known. (During the week of the Mumsnet attacks, one of the perpetrators attempted to locate another target using their computer’s IP address, which can identify where a person is connected to the internet, often with alarming precision. Their calculation, however, was slightly out; police were called to a neighbour’s address.)

Though doxxing has a less dramatic outcome than swatting, the psychological effects can be just as severe. For victims – usually people who are active on the internet and who have outspoken opinions or who, in the eyes of an internet mob, have committed some kind of transgression – the mere threat of having their personal information made available on the web can cause lasting trauma. A Canadian software developer whose home address, bank details, social security number and email history were published online in 2014 told me that he now keeps an axe by his front door. “I still don’t feel safe here,” he said. “It’s terrifying.”

Christos Reid, a social media manager for a software company, was doxxed last year. Reid’s information came from a website he had registered seven years earlier. “I woke up one morning to find a tweet announcing my personal details,” he told me. When he asked the Twitter account holder to take down the address, he was told to commit suicide. Reid said he was “OK for about half an hour”; but then, after he went out, he broke down in the street. “I’ve become more paranoid,” he said. He no longer gives out business cards with personal information.

Reid lives in London, but at the time of the doxx he was attending an event in Nottingham, home to the British police’s largest cybercrime division. He was impressed with the police response, even though they told him that they had not heard of the term “doxxing” before. “I was interviewed by two separate people about my experiences who then compiled everything into a case file and transferred it to the Met. When I arrived home, an officer visited me to discuss what happened and my options.”

The policeman explained harassment law to Reid, and offered advice on how to improve security at his flat and what to do if someone hostile turned up at the address. Reid shouldered the repercussions of what had happened alone; no suspects were identified. A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police similarly said that although detectives from Islington CID have investigated the swatting attacks made on Roberts and Scott, no suspects have been identified “at this time”, even as “inquiries continue”.

Doxxing may seem to be a mild form of harassment but it carries with it an implicit threat of impending violence; the worrying message is: “We know where you live.” Unlike swatting, which is always malicious, doxxing is sometimes viewed by its perpetrators as virtuous. In November 2014, hackers claiming to be aligned with the internet group Anonymous published personal information allegedly belonging to a Ku Klux Klan member from Missouri. The hackers said that their action was a response to the KKK’s threat to use lethal force against demonstrators in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, protesting against the killing of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer. In January 2015 hackers claiming to be from Isis took over US Central Command’s Twitter account and posted information about senior military officers, including phone numbers and email addresses. In each case, those carrying out the doxxing believed, however mistakenly, in the virtue of their actions and hoped that the information could be used to bring punishment or ruin to the subject.

The term “doxxing” may be new but the practice is an old one. The Hollywood blacklist revealed the political beliefs and associations of actors and directors in the late 1940s as a way to invite shame, deny employment and dissuade others from following their example. “But it has become a lot easier to find people’s private details with the help of the internet,” Jeroen Vader told me. Vader owns Pastebin, a website that allows users to upload and distribute text documents, and where much of the personal data is anonymously uploaded and shared. “People post their private information on social networks,” he said. “A lot of people aren’t aware that their information is so easily available to others.”

In Justine Roberts’s case, the perpetrator may not even have needed to look at social networks to mine her personal information. “If you’re on the electoral roll, you’re easy to find,” she said. “There’s not much you can do to stop people getting hold of your data one way or another, whether it’s for nefarious reasons or simply to better advertise to you. We live in a world that is constantly trying to gather more information about us.”

Jeroen Vader said he has noticed an “upward trend” in the number of doxxing posts uploaded to Pastebin in recent months, but insisted that when someone uses the site’s abuse report system these offending posts are removed immediately.

Across social media companies, action is more often reactive than proactive. Victoria Taylor, a former director at Reddit, one of the largest community-driven websites in the world, said that the rule against publishing other users’ personal information has been “consistently one of the site’s most basic policies” and that “any violation of this rule is taken extremely seriously by the team and community”. Still, she was only able to recommend that victims of doxxing send a message to the site’s administrators. Similarly, when asked what a person can do to remove personal details that have been published without permission, a Twitter spokesperson said: “Use our help form.”

The spokesperson added: “There has def­initely been an overall increase in doxxing since 2006, both on Twitter and on the internet more generally.” She attributed this rise to the emergence of search engines such as Intelius and Spokeo, services designed to locate personal information.

***

The surge in the number of dox­xing and swatting attacks is in part a result of the current lack of legal protection for victims. Confusion regarding the law on doxxing is pervasive; the term is even not mentioned in either US or European law. In a tutorial posted on Facebook in 2013, the writer claims: “Doxxing isn’t illegal as all the information you have obtained is public,” and adds: “But posting of the doxx might get you in a little trouble.”

Phil Lee, a partner in the privacy, security and information department of Fieldfisher based at the law firm’s office in Silicon Valley, said that differing privacy laws around the world were part of the problem. “Various countries have laws that cover illegal or unauthorised obtaining of data. Likewise, some of the consequences of releasing that data, such as defamation or stalking, cover elements of what we now term doxxing. But there is no global law covering what is a global phenomenon.” Indeed, Roberts believes that her London address was targeted from America – the 999 call was routed through a US proxy number.

One challenge to creating a law on doxxing is that the sharing of personal information without permission has already become so widespread in the digital age. “If a law was to state something like, ‘You must not post personal information about another person online without their consent,’ it wouldn’t reflect how people use the internet,” Lee said. “People post information about what their friends and family members have been doing all the time without their consent.

“Such a law could have a potentially detrimental effect on freedom of speech.”

Lee believes that a specific law is unnecessary, because its potentially harmful effects are already covered by three discrete pieces of legislation dealing with instances where a person’s private information is obtained illegally, when that information is used to carry out illegal acts and when the publication of the information is accompanied by a threat to incite hatred. However, this does not adequately account for cases in which the information is obtained legally, and then used to harass the individual in a more legally ambiguous manner, either with prank phone calls or with uninvited orders of pizza.

Susan Basko, an independent lawyer who practises in California and who has been doxxed in the course of her frequent clashes with internet trolls, believes that the onus should be on the law, rather than the public. She points out that in the US it is a crime to publicise information about a government employee such as their home address, their home and cellphone numbers, or their social security number, even if the information is already online. “This law should apply to protect all people, not just federal employees,” she said. “And websites, website-hosting companies and other ISPs should be required to uphold this law.”

Basko said that doxxing will continue to increase while police have inadequate resources to follow up cases. For now, it is up to individuals to take preventative measures. Zoë Quinn, an American game designer and public speaker who was doxxed in 2014, has launched Crash Override, a support network and assistance group for targets of online harassment, “composed entirely of experienced survivors”.

Quinn, who spoke about the problem at a congressional hearing in Washington, DC in April last year, recently posted a guide on how to reduce the likelihood of being doxxed. “If you are worried you might some day be targeted,” she wrote, “consider taking an evening to stalk yourself online, deleting and opting out of anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Both Scott and Roberts have changed their privacy habits following the attacks. Scott is more careful about interacting with strangers online, while Roberts uses scrambler software, which ensures that she never uses the same password for more than one online site or service.

For both women’s families, the effects of their encounters with armed police have also lingered. When one day recently Roberts’s husband returned home early from work, the au pair called the police, believing it was an intruder. And Scott is haunted by what happened.

“What if my husband had made a sudden move or resisted in some way? What if my eldest had grabbed the gun instead of gently reaching for it? What if people locally believed that my husband did actually have guns in the house?” she asks. “I don’t think the people making these sorts of hoax calls realise the impact.” 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism